October 2012

Scene4 Magazine - The Devil Tree | David Wiley | October 2012 |

In the savannah lands of Africa there are certain great trees that stand out like a lighthouse in the ocean.  These trees are generally so solitary that a bird perched on the top of one would not be able to see another anywhere in its field of vision.  Aerial photographs have been taken from directly above some of these trees, and they show the design of a wheel with hub and spokes but no rim.  The numerous trails made by animals and people seeking shelter from the sun radiate out from the tree in every direction and vanish in the distance.

There was such a tree in Arrussi Province in Ethiopia, near the town of Assella where I spent a year teaching English in the provincial school. Living and working in a village in southern Ethiopia was not something I had planned to do, it was another episode in the period of vagabonding that consumed a good part of my youth.  I had spent some time exploring the Mediterranean, then East Africa, and finally I had come to Addis Ababa, very low on money and not quite sure what to do next.  I went to visit a family friend who was posted at the U.S. Embassy there, and in the course of our conversation I asked him if he thought I might be able to get a teaching job in Ethiopia.  He said he had heard that there was a shortage of English teachers whose first language was English.  He made a couple of calls, and the next day I had an interview with an official at the Ministry of Education who informed me, after he had satisfied himself as to my qualifications, that there was a job available to me if I were willing to work for low pay in a small town in the highlands just above the Great Rift Valley. Having become accustomed to doing things in the surrealist way, that is, by instinct rather than reason, I accepted, and a week later I was taken by Land Rover to my new home.

The town of Assella, although it was the capital of Arrussi Province, was indeed small.  The Ras Dargay School, a cluster of three brick and concrete buildings, appeared to be the center of activity.  After meeting the principal, Ato Amdi, I was introduced to an Indian named Malya who like myself was a new teacher.  He was a congenial fellow, and after we had discussed housing with Ato Amdi and the official from the Ministry, it was suggested that perhaps Malya and I could share a house.  Rent on a place with toilet, shower and sink would be quite a lot for one person on a teacher's pay.  There were three other Indian teachers who had lived in Assella for several years, and Malya had been staying with them since his arrival, but he seemed to like the idea of sharing a house with me.  So the next afternoon we were installed in simple but adequate quarters within walking distance of the school, a house with tin roof, running water, a small front porch and a shed, all inside a fenced compound.

Shortly after I had settled in and begun my duties, which consisted of teaching English to 9th, 10th and 11th grade students, I bought a horse and an Ethiopian saddle, which would make it possible for me to visit some of the places of interest outside town, including the Coptic Church and the Swedish Mission, both several kilometers away in different directions.  One of the foreign teachers at the school was a lively young Norwegian woman named Rhondi Bolsvik, wife of one of the two doctors at the Swedish Mission, and she had given me a brief description of the place and its cast of characters.  She assured me I would be welcome there any time.

Thus one Saturday morning I set out for the Mission on Balambaras, my somewhat lazy but trusty steed.  As we approached our destination I noticed, rising above everything, a monumental tree. Due to the hilly terrain this tree was not visible from town, but once one came close enough it was clear that the tree, living as it was on top of the escarpment leading down into the Rift Valley, could be seen from many kilometers away, by all the people who lived around the valley lakes, gleaming in the sunlight off in the distance.  I dismounted and led Balambaras to the tree, marveling as I approached.  Its trunk was very much like an enormous Doric column, smooth and cylindrical. The lowermost branches sprang out from the trunk about ten meters above the ground, and as they spread out in a perpendicular fashion they formed a huge canopy resembling an umbrella shaped like a half sphere.  I felt humbled by this charismatic goliath, and thought how lucky these people were to be living on the same grounds with it.

The head of the Mission, Dr. Bergstrom, was away tending patients in the valley, but his wife, Marta, greeted me warmly.  She was a tall, nervous, gray-haired woman who bore signs of a difficult life.  She led me around the compound to see the little church, which was obviously her pride and joy, and the slightly larger hospital where I met Dr. Per Dagfin Bolsvik, Rhondi's husband, and May Britt, a rather attractive blond woman who was the head nurse.  They were an energetic group, apparently happy in their work, painful though it must have been at times.  When I mentioned the magnificence of their tree Marta's face clouded up a little and she quickly changed the subject to eggs.  "We have goose eggs, and you are welcome to have some whenever you come. . . for a small donation."

Dr. Bolsvik asked about what inoculations I had been given, and if I had enough quinine tablets.  As he spoke there were some loud groans from the hospital, upon which Marta explained in lugubrious tones that there was much suffering and frequent deaths from various diseases.  "Some poor souls pass on without coming to our Lord and Savior Jesus," she said, shaking her head in a gesture of despair.

There were quite a few people doing chores around the grounds, which were neat and well kept.  We walked on to the vegetable garden where we found Rhondi Bolsvik and an Ethiopian who was introduced to me as Elias, head man at the Mission.  The two of them were busy watering rows of healthy looking plants. When it came time to leave Marta assured me I would be invited to Sunday dinner sometime when her husband was at home. And of course I would be welcome to attend church services.  She gave me some goose eggs and a few tomatoes, for which I made a generous contribution.  "For the hospital," I said, and Marta nodded, but with a certain aspect of disapproval, I thought.

The following Monday, I found Rhondi Bolsvik in the teachers' room, a sterile space highlighted by a ping-pong table.  "What did you think of Marta?"  Rhondi asked, right off. 

"She seemed to be under quite a bit of strain," I replied cautiously. 

"You haven't met Dr. Bergstrom yet, but they are certainly an unusual couple.  Marta is very zealous and dedicated to making converts.  She often gets frustrated and I think she blames her husband for not helping her more.  He's not really interested in the religious part of the Mission.  He's too busy saving lives.  He's probably an atheist, but I don't really know about that.  In any case, he rarely goes to church, and it makes Marta unhappy."  Rhondi stopped speaking for a moment and stared out the window pondering something. "The doctor was born in Africa," she resumed, "and has lived here all his life except for his schooling in Sweden. He was a doctor on the Finnish side in the Russo-Finnish War.  He was also a doctor for the Ethiopians during the Italian invasion in 1935. He's seen a lot, and he can tell you some astonishing stories."

"I'm looking forward to meeting him," I said.  Then I asked her what had been on my mind all along.  "Why did Marta frown when I mentioned their spectacular tree?"

Rhondi laughed.  "Oh, that tree is a very sore subject with Marta.  There is at least one tribe of Gallas living around Lake Langanno and another tribe of Guragis from Lake Zwai who worship it.  Now and then they make the journey up from the lakes to the Mission so they can perform their ceremonies.  They run their hands over the tree and sing to it and dance around it. Dr. Bergstrom, who knows all these dialects, could tell you what they're saying.  Marta doesn't understand them, but she knows they're praying to it and worshipping it, and all this drives her crazy."

"How often do these people come?"  I asked, thinking perhaps I could visit the Mission sometime when they were there.  "And how long do they stay?"

"They come about every two months.  It has something to do with the moon.  And they stay for a day or two." 

"What does Dr. Bergstrom think of all this?" I asked. 

"Oh, he's the wise one.  He understands these people.  Over the years Marta has tried, when the doctor was away, to convert them.  And when that didn't work she tried to chase them off the property.  The doctor put his foot down.  He's ordered her many times not to bother them.  May Britt told me that about two years ago, before Per Dagfin and I came here, Marta had begged the doctor on her knees, crying like a baby, to have the tree cut down.  The doctor became very angry and told her that if any harm came to the tree he would send her back to Sweden without him.  Marta still complains to him constantly that the tree is a source of sacrilege and blasphemy.  She sees it as the work of the devil, and the people dancing around it as demons.  Of course she also sees them as potential converts.  The doctor is really quite patient with her, but their purposes are different.  She wants to save souls and he wants to save lives, and they are too much opposed to do both together.  She hardly ever goes into the hospital, and he seldom goes into the church."

Rhondi had revealed quite a lot about the Bergstroms, probably more than she should have, and it made me wonder about their true feelings for each other.  Perhaps they understood one another too well not to love each other.  No doubt they had been through many strange and dramatic experiences together, experiences of the sort that tend to solidify a marriage in spite of incompatibilities.

That evening I related to Malya what I had heard from Rhondi. 

"Ah, yes.  Well, you have many religions in America, do you not?  We have many in India too.  I think some people who live close to nature want to worship something that's a part of nature.  That was the way with your American aborigines, was it not?  The sun.  The moon. The stars.  A cow.  A river. A tree.  There are people who worship certain birds and divine the future by interpreting their behavior."

"Yes," I agreed.  "There are people who worship everything in nature."

"There are those too."  Malya gazed at me intently.  "What about you?"

"I think everyone should invent his own religion, and keep it to himself," I replied.  Malya laughed.

"I like that idea," he said.  "And since I've been in Africa it has occurred to me that all things are possible, and that we don't really know much about anything."

We sat silently for a while, and then he asked, "Have you ever read the Kama Sutra?" 

"No, I haven't read it," I answered, "but I've heard about it."

"Sometime I'll lend you my copy.  It's a kind of holy book, a liturgy for a profound type of nature worship. One day. . ."  He leaned over as if to communicate a confession.  "One day I will find a woman and we will go off into the forest.  Then you will have to get a new housemate.  You see, I'm a kind of pagan myself."  His grin was a cornucopia of sensual delights.

Never having been a teacher before, I found myself learning on the job, making my duties fairly time-consuming.  Even so, there were many tantalizing prospects.  With Malya's help I had befriended the Indian teachers, and we had exchanged dinners and made plans to climb Mt. Chillalo, the fourteen thousand foot mountain that looked down on Assella.  There were rumors of a new governor of Arrussi Province coming in the near future to live in the governor's palace, located a few kilometers from town.  One Friday at school Rhondi informed me that I was invited to the Mission for Sunday dinner, Dr. Bergstrom having returned from his medical practice in the lowlands. It was a welcome invitation, first because I had been looking forward to meeting the doctor, but also because I was very anxious to once again see the tree whose image frequently intruded on my reveries.

On my second trip to the Swedish Mission I kept looking for the top of the tree to come into view, and when it did the sun was shining on it in such a way as to make it look like a giant silvery-green dome, not unlike the domes of certain large cathedrals.  I stopped to pay my respects before going on up to the house. 

This time I was greeted by May Britt, who ushered me into the living room where the two doctors and their wives were chatting.  Dr. Nils Bergstrom rose and offered his hand, which was large, like the rest of him.  He was balding and there were creases in his face.  His intense blue eyes expressed a great many things, including determination, compassion, and world-weariness.  I knew he had seen a lot of death.  He struck me as a kind of warrior-doctor, somehow akin to the warrior-poets of history.  I wondered, somewhat fatuously, how many lives he had saved.  During the fine dinner that had been prepared Dr. Bergstrom regaled us with several astounding tales which reinforced my impression of Africa as a place of mystery and surprise, and occasional miracles.  The subject of the new governor's impending arrival was discussed.  This man, Ras Daniel Abebe, Dr. Bergstrom explained, was a nephew of the Emperor Haile Selassie.  He had been living as a playboy in Italy, spending the royal family's fortune.  According to the doctor, he had a collection of fast cars, flew his own plane, and had been involved with several French and Italian actresses.  The Emperor had decided it was time for his nephew to do his duty to him and the country and so had ordered Daniel to return to Ethiopia, marry an Amhara woman of good standing, and settle down in Arrussi Province as its governor.  Dr. Bergstrom had heard that the wedding would take place in Addis Ababa in a month or so, and after that Ras Daniel would be coming to Assella.  There would be celebrations and a feast.

After dinner I found myself alone on the front porch with Dr. Bergstrom. The tree was visible about a hundred meters away, and I wondered how such an innocent and beautiful ambassador from the world of flora could be a cause of human conflict.  Taking advantage of the opportunity, I asked the doctor what the worshipers were chanting when they danced around the tree. He was a bit surprised by my question, but seemed happy enough to answer it.

"They praise it in every way you can imagine.  'Oh great one,' they say, 'mother of all life. . .  serene and wise one. . . oh sublime and perfect one who sees all things!'  They use every word of praise in their vocabulary."

"Do you have any idea when they'll be coming back?"  I asked, still thinking it was a sight I would like to see.

"They usually come when the moon is full.  You would like to see this?"

"Yes," I said.  "I'm very curious about such things."  The doctor nodded and suggested that I find out when the next full moon was due.

Upon returning to Assella I found Malya grading papers.  I retold a couple of Dr. Bergstrom's bizarre stories for him, adding that if I were any judge of character at all the doctor was not making them up.

"Baron Munchausen could be very convincing too," Malya said, chuckling.

"You're quite a suspicious fellow," I replied.

"No, no!"  he objected. "True or not, it's better than reading a history book."

"You mean an interesting lie is better than a dull truth?"  But I did believe the doctor's stories, although I had begun to acquire a sense of unreality about things in general, a through-the-looking-glass sensation. There was so much of the strange and unknown.  It was life on the planet, people scratching out a living and competing with animals for food, as it had been for thousands of years.  The school buildings, the few Land Rovers, the water pipes and other accoutrements of modern civilization all seemed like anomalies.  The reality was with the age-old way of life.  It was difficult, though, to reconcile this hard reality with the pervasive sense of fantasy that had come over me.  In any case, I had never felt so close to nature, or to discovering important things about myself.

"By the way," I said to Malya, "if you can help me find out when the next full moon is I'll buy you a bottle of tej." 

For the next few nights I went outside looking for the moon, but it was not in sight.  I had asked Rhondi to let me know if there was any news of the tree-worshipers, and one morning at school she approached me in a state of excitement.

"Marta has made her move!"  Rhondi declared.  "Day before yesterday Dr. Bergstrom left to make his rounds of the province, and yesterday morning Marta ordered Elias to make a wooden cross, a big one, about two meters tall.  And when I got back to the Mission yesterday afternoon it was tied to the tree with a rope, just below the first branches.  I think Marta hopes that when the Gallas come to worship they'll see the cross and it will somehow entice them into the church.  One of the men at the Mission, Zewdie, speaks some of their language, and from what I can gather Marta's plan is to station him by the tree, and when they come he'll try to convince them it's a sign that the tree wants them to embrace Christianity."  She stopped speaking and shrugged.  "It's all quite mad."

"Oh my god," I said, "what do you think will happen?"

"I have no idea."  Rhondi laughed.  "We'll find out, though.  The moon will be full in a few days."

"You will keep me informed?"

"Of course."

"Do you know when the doctor will be back?"

Rhondi thought for a moment.  "It's my understanding that he won't return until just before the new governor arrives—about three or four weeks from now.  Maybe longer."

With this news churning around in my head, I tried to think what I could do in the way of bearing witness to this unfolding drama.  I thought about posing the problem to my 11th grade students, a group of eighteen boys who had come far, educationally speaking, and knew English well enough to discuss such matters.  It was a topic that would interest them, I felt. So the next day in class I brought up the subject of the tree.  They had all seen it at one time or another, and most of them knew about the worshipers. The next assignment, consequently, would be to write an essay on whether or not worshiping a tree was a proper thing to do.  When I read the finished essays two days later it was clear that they had relished the assignment.  Their views were varied and in some cases unexpected.  One student mentioned that there were people farther south in Arrussi Province who worshiped Mt. Chillalo.  Another boy who was himself a Guragi said he was familiar with nature worship and didn't see any reason why it should conflict with Christianity, a theological proposition I thought full of possibilities and pitfalls alike.  A few students were more inclined to Marta's way of thinking, and one boy explained in a highly ornate and roundabout way that he thought the whole topic was ridiculous.  I hadn't told them about the cross being tied to the tree.  I thought that would be a good subject for a possible follow-up essay.

The full moon finally arrived on a Tuesday night, and the next day Rhondi reported to me that she had seen five or six Gallas around the tree that morning before coming to school.  She said they appeared to be somewhat confused by the cross, talking and gesticulating in an animated way.  She had seen Zewdie speaking with them but she had not seen any of them moving away from the tree and toward the church.  Since I had been meaning to get a yellow fever shot from her husband, I asked Rhondi, who also used a horse for transportation, if I could accompany her back to the Mission after school.  When the last class was over we made the ride up the eroded track to the Mission, and as soon as the tree became visible we heard singing and chanting punctuated now and then with a loud whoop.  As we came upon the tree we saw six Gallas dressed in animal skins and carrying spears, all circling the tree, performing their rites.  Marta and Zewdie were standing nearby, motioning and calling in Ambaric and Galla.  Marta was in a state of great agitation, and when we approached she said, "Oh! These people – they will not come to Jesus!  I have prayed and prayed . . . oh! What can I do!?"  She put her hands together in an attitude of prayer.  "Zewdie thinks they're trying to decide something.  Oh dear Lord! Let them come to Jesus!" Marta carried on for some time with her hopes and prayers.  As we watched, the worshipers would occasionally point their spears at the cross and shout a phrase that Zewdia interpreted as having to do with power. Suddenly the tree-worshipers let out a loud WHOOP and left, disappearing over the edge of the escarpment.  We stood in the silence wondering, each of us, what it meant.  This was a break in tradition.  Always before they had stayed at least one night.  In any event the cross on the tree had made an impression.  Something was different, and the mistress of the Mission hoped that she had made some progress.  "Next time they will come to Jesus," she said, tears on her cheeks. 

As the days progressed Rhondi would find me at school if there was anything of interest to report.  Nothing much had happened.  The cross was still tied to the tree but the Gallas had not returned.  The doctor would be coming back soon, a day or two before the arrival of Ras Daniel Abebe.  We had learned that there would be a procession through Assella at about one o'clock on Saturday, with Ras Daniel and an entourage of family and dignitaries.  Shortly afterwards there would be a feast at the governor's compound hosted by Ras Daniel and his new wife, with hundreds of people invited, including all the teachers and people from the Mission.

When the day came, I found Malya preparing to go for a walk in the forest. His Bohemian soul had disinclined him to attend the festivities. 

"I understand how you feel," I told him, "but you'll be passing up an opportunity to see something interesting.  Not only that, but Ato Amdi won't like it if you don't go.  You'll end up getting all the shit duties. Also," I added, "May Brit will be there. I think you and she might get along very well." 

"Oh, the blond Swedish nurse?"  He inquired dubiously.  "Would you introduce me to her?"

"Sure," I said.  "She seems to me like the kind of woman who could give up nursing and go live in the forest."  Malya laughed and accused me of tempting him with impossibilities.

"Don't think that way.  I have a feeling she'll like you."

Malya ruminated for a while and then went into his room.  When he reappeared he was wearing his best clothes and a smile.  "You Americans think everything is possible."  He looked himself over and brushed some lint from his jacket.  "So you'll introduce me?"

As we walked to the dirt road that was the main street of Assella we began to hear a mélange of shouting, drum beats, and other more subdued noises.  Everyone who could walk or ride or crawl was expected to line the road and greet the new governor.  Arriving at the scene, we found ourselves part of a convention, as it were, of the inhabitants of Arrussi Province: Ato Amdi and the teachers, the local military establishment, the Coptic clergy, Dr. Bergstrom and the people from the Mission, provincial bureaucrats and functionaries, chieftains and their sons from tribes of the Arruss mountains, chieftains and their sons from tribes of the Great Rift Valley, Gallas, Guragis, Falashas, men wearing leopard skins, chanting wildly and brandishing spears.  As the governor's entourage approached, a long line of women set up a chorus of shrill ululations.  Malya and I were not far from the Swedish Mission contingent, so I attempted to maneuver us into their midst in order to fulfill my promise.  At last we did snake our way into the group, and I introduced "my scholarly friend" to May Britt.  They smiled at each other.

Soon enough the uproar became louder as Ras Daniel's Rolls Royce appeared coming up the Assella hill and into the village.  The ululations grew more frenetic.   Everyone bowed and a few prostrated themselves as the big convertible passed by.  Following the Rolls were some other vehicles bearing the family and dignitaries, and after that came fifty or sixty horsemen carrying hippopotamus hide shields chased with silver, yelling and chanting; and altogether they formed a parade that didn't stop until it had reached the governor's compound several kilometers down the road.

Standing there together as we were, I took the opportunity to introduce Malya to the two doctors.  Rhondi of course he had already met at school.  Marta, however, was missing.  Dr. Bergstrom informed us that she and Elias had been required to stay at the Mission because of the large number of people milling about.  There was concern in his face and in his voice, and I wanted to ask if there was any problem.  I realized, however, that it would be my curiosity speaking rather than my concern for Marta, so I held my tongue.

Now it was time to go to the feast.  The Mission group headed for the governor's palace in the Mission Land Rover. Malya and I went back to the house and saddled Balabarmas.  I rode in the saddle, and he got the better part of the deal riding on the haunches. Upon reaching the compound of the governor's palace we saw that a gigantic tent had been set up for the occasion, and the festivities had already begun.  There were musicians with horns, violins, masinkos, drums and flutes.  There were tribesmen dancing and screaming war cries.  There were horsemen with shields and spears playing yeferesgookz, a contest similar to jousting.  Priests in black robes and white turbans carrying censors and sticks with elaborate silver crosses mingled with the crowd.  Women in beautiful snow-white shamas embroidered with bright colors and gold thread stood by men wearing pith helmets and jodhpurs.  Monks and acolytes held big colorful umbrellas with tassels over the assemblage.  Somehow it reminded me of Chaucer's pilgrims gathering for their journey to Canterbury. It was medieval through and through, with the wild flavors of Africa.

We all passed along a reception line just inside the tent, shaking hands with Ras Daniel, who resembled his famous uncle except he was more robust than the Emperor and still wore the glint of the libertine in his eye. We bowed to his wife, a beautiful Amhara woman who seemed a bit uneasy in her new role.  Everyone was seated at long tables crowded with bottles and glasses. There was champagne, scotch, tej, wine, gin, vodka, and other things I couldn't identify, nearly a complete bar for each guest.  We were given an hour and a half to drink before any food was brought.  I recalled one of the stories Dr. Bergstrom had told at dinner that Sunday, about a royal feast he had attended many years earlier where the drunkenness and debauchery were of Dionysian proportions.  His descriptions had made Marta purse her lips and blush, although a blush without the rosy tint.  Malya had managed to seat himself next to May Britt, and they were laughing and getting along well.  Eventually men wearing only loin-cloths carried in whole sides of raw beef draped over heavy poles they bore upon their shoulders.  Each diner had been given a sharp knife, and we were supposed to cut a piece of meat from the cow, which had allegedly been fed nothing but oats and honey all its life.  I overhead Dr. Bergstrom quoting an Ethiopian proverb about the blood of the lion and the nectar of the lily being drunk at the same feast.  The music and laughter and voices became so loud it was almost impossible to converse.  Huge injerasand various kinds of wat were put in front of us, and now and then a waiter with a tub of caviar passed by.  We ate and drank and talked and imagined ourselves in a tale of the Arabian Nights.

About three hours into the feast Dr. Bergstrom rose and informed us that he was worried about Marta and had to return to the Mission.  He would send Elias back with the Land Rover.  Then he made his apologies to Ras Daniel and his wife before leaving.  I was sitting next to Dr. Bolsvik, and during the course of the afternoon I had learned from him that when the tribal chieftains had come up from the lakes to attend the feast they had been followed by a large number of tribesmen who were tree-worshipers, and many of them had ended up on the grounds of the Mission.  They were making a lot of noise and doing all those things with the tree that caused Marta to lose her composure.  At first, he said, Marta thought they had come to look at the cross on the tree and perhaps to listen to her call to worship.  When they left for the festivities, however, there had been no movement toward the church.

We continued eating and drinking on into the late afternoon, and when it was finally over and the three hundred or so guests had made their way out of the tent, we looked around for Elias and the Land Rover but they were nowhere to be seen.  It was almost sundown and we decided to start walking.  I unhobbled Balambaras and we set out for town.  Many had come on foot or horseback, so the road was relatively crowded.  As it began to get dark suddenly Malya shouted "Look!" and pointed toward the flanks of Mt. Chillalo.  "There's the full moon."

Yes, it was true.  A full moon was rising over the ridge of the mountain.  If we had to walk at night at least we would have plenty of moonlight. Rhondi looked at me in a questioning way, and I knew that she was also thinking about the tree-worshipers.  We walked on for some time, and as we came into Assella Elias appeared trotting towards us.  He explained apologetically that the Land Rover had slid off the road into a ditch.  It would take a large number of men with a rope to pull it out.  So the Bolsviks and May Britt would have to walk.  Malya, who was busy with his connubial pursuits, offered to walk on to the Mission with them.  "Maybe I can help with the Land Rover," he volunteered.  Ever since the end of the feast I had been trying to think of an excuse to go to the Mission.  Now I offered my assistance as well.

We all continued on, with Balambaras in tow.  He might prove helpful in the rescue of the vehicle.  When we came to the disabled Land Rover it was obvious however that it would take more than the six of us and a horse to pull it out of its predicament deep in a gully.  Anyway, it was a beautiful evening, and the full moon provided both light and enchantment. As we walked along all I could think about, though, was what we would find at the Mission.

When we were about a kilometer away we began to hear the roar of many voices, and we knew that the tree-worshipers were there, and in large numbers.  When at last we came into the Mission grounds and saw the tree we stopped and stared in amazement.  There were at least a hundred Gallas and Guragis dancing around in the moonlight, caressing the tree and singing their praises to it.  Zewdie, who was watching from a distance, came up to us and spoke to Elias in Amharic, gesturing and shaking his head.  Elias turned to us and explained, as best he could, what had happened. The six Gallas who had seen the cross tied to the tree about a month earlier had gone back to the lakes and reported that their tree-god had shown its power by capturing the Christian cross. This had been interpreted by them as a kind of miracle, raising the tree to its most exalted heights.  Thus, on the occasion of the governor's feast, which had coincided with the full moon, all the faithful plus a number of new worshipers had come to celebrate.  Marta's inspiration had won converts for the tree instead of the church.

There were several lanterns lit on the front porch of the house, and we could see Dr. Bergstrom and Marta standing there holding each other.  The ironies of what had happened filled me with sympathy for both of them.  At the same time, I felt overcome by the sounds and the spectacle of a hundred worshipers dancing wildly around a giant tree silhouetted against the full moon. It was the last act in a day of wonders.

The next day was Sunday, and after the Gallas and Guragis had left to make their trek back to the lakes Elias and Zewdie removed the cross from the tree and installed it in the church just behind the pulpit.  A short time later, the sound of hymns being sung by a fervent congregation rang out through the walls of the little Lutheran church there on the edge of the Rift Valley.  Not far away stood "mother-of-all-life," regal and unperturbed, an anchor for some, a beacon for many.  And in the following days a young Indian teacher and a young Swedish nurse could be seen now and then sitting quietly in the savannah grass beneath her great sheltering arms.

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©2012 David Wiley
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

David Wiley, painter-poet: graduate of U. Kansas; studied in Mexico and with artist Ignacio Belen in Barcelona. He exhibits throughout California and abroad. Wiley has published two volumes of poetry: Designs for a Utopian Zoo (1992) and The Face of Creation (1996).


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Scene4 Magazine - Scientific American |
Character Flaws by Les Marcott at
Gertrude Stein-In Words and Pictures - Renate Stendhal